This story is by Monisha Mukherjee and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Rise and shine, 225! Line up in five minutes.”
225 scoffed to himself. Rise and shine, what a ridiculous phrase. There was no shine when your whole life could be summarized by the three walls and steel bars. He struggled to open his eyes; he hadn’t slept, but he didn’t want to get up. The air hung heavy in the ironwood prison. His cell consisted of a cot, toilet, desk, and a puny wall mirror that he had taken the first chance to cover up. It wasn’t a miserable place; well, not as miserable as it could have been, but the prison itself wasn’t the source of 225’s hatred. No, the source of his misery was something he had yet to determine. It had been six years since he had felt fresh air, and at this point he didn’t care anymore. His crime and punishment had sucked the heart out of him a long time ago. All that was left was guilt and anger. The screeching of the gate signaled him to step out. One foot after the other into line up. He didn’t even have to think about it; it was instinct.
“On to the chow hall!”
225 turns to get in line but a hand reaches out and stops him. “Not you 225.” He froze in his tracks. A guard stepped forward.
“Is there a problem Clyde?”
Clyde just shrugs.
“Don’t know. I just got orders from the higher-ups to take you to visitors. Don’t know why it wasn’t announced beforehand.”
“I never get visitors. Who is here to see me?”
“Above my paygrade 225. We got to get a move on.”
Clyde and another guard lead 225 in the opposite direction of the other inmates. 225 had learned not to look them in the eye. Instead he stared at the floor, racking his brain for whatever it was that he had done. There was the slightest hint of fear rising out of this strange interruption to his usual schedule. Not a single day had anyone come to visit, not that he knew what day it was. Most of the prisoners kept tally of their days here, counting down until their release. 225 didn’t have anything to count down to: he was in here until he died. He solely knew that six years had passed because his lawyer sent him a sad birthday card every year. Suddenly the guards in front of him stopped. Clyde pulled out a keycard and fumbled with it for a moment before opening the door in front of them. 225 looked past Clyde into the visitors’ room. There were several tables in the room, all empty but one. Three young people sat at the one table. Two girls and a boy, all looking to be in their twenties, began to whisper amongst each other after seeing 225. It wasn’t too upsetting as 225 was used to seeing people whisper about him.
“After you 225.”
He stepped through the doorway and up to the table. The people stopped their whispering as he approached.
“This is the prisoner you requested to see.”
They seemed afraid to speak. 225 just stared at his shoes, not wanting to see their faces. He had had enough judgement for a lifetime.
“Dr. Matthew Moore?”
225 almost choked in surprise. It had been so long since he had heard his own name. All the memories he had worked so hard to push down suddenly came flooding back in. A wave of anger and sadness washed over him as he struggled to raise his head and look them in the eye. He thought he had seen it all, every face someone could make. Disgust, rage, terror, pity, but these kids looked up at him with something else. With wonder. The way a five-year old looks at a comic book superhero.
“Please sit down, sir,” the boy said.
“Sir?” The prison guard laughed. The girl on the left shot him a very disapproving look, and he shut up. 225 slowly sat down, his movements very cautious. That’s when he saw the badges on their clothes. Government standard issue.
“Very nice to meet you Dr. Moore, I am Kate, this is Ethan, and that’s Angela,” said the girl in the middle. “We have read so much about you Dr. Moore and-”
The name hurt his ears. Everything from his old life, all the pain, kept stinging his head every time they said it.
“Could you please not call me that?”
The girl seemed taken aback.
“I’m not a doctor anymore. What do you want from me?”
The trio was thrown off guard. They looked to each other, confused.
“Well I guess we’ll just get to the point.” Ethan said, flipping open a folder in front of him. He pulled out a piece of paper and pushed it forward.
“We need your help to rebuild the X-wave machine, and we are willing to help you get out of here to do it.”
225 chuckled at the piece of paper, but when he looked up into the kids’ eyes he realized they were dead serious.
“Yes, we think your machine can do some real good in the world.”
225 was already holding his head in his hands.
“Let me stop you right there. Do you know what happened the last time someone tried to make this machine? It exploded and set a building on fire! Now you want me to rebuild this monstrosity?!” He pushed the paper away. “You want my advice kids? You want to do some good in the world? Tear up the plans for that machine and burn them to a crisp.”
Now the triad was speechless. This was definitely not the reaction they had expected.
“Sir, the only reason your machine failed before was because you tested it too early in the production process.”
“I said no. I will not help you. I don’t deserve to be set free and I won’t pretend that my life can go back to the way it was before, because it can’t.” He rose out of his seat and walked back toward the door.
“It’s the number of people that died right?”
He froze and turned back to the table. Kate had spoken.
“That’s why the guards call you 225.”
His eye twitched, but he said nothing.
“I get it. You feel guilty, but sitting in this dinghy hole and feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to bring back those 225 people.” She shoved the paper toward him.
“But maybe if you build that machine and do it right this time, they won’t have died for nothing.” She and the others got up and started to leave.
“Do you know what the first step to redemption is, sir?”
He said nothing.
“It’s forgiving yourself. You have to do that before you can expect anyone else to forgive you.” She left the room with her colleagues, leaving 225 staring down at the paper on the table.
This led him to staring at the paper in his hands in the dark of his cell; and then he felt his eyes drift somewhere else. Somewhere he hadn’t looked in a long time. He took a step across the cell to his mirror and slid the rag off it. Even in the dark he could see the face in the mirror. He blinked and looked again. He clamped his eyes closed and shook his head, opening them again. He remembered how he had looked before: clean-shaven, gelled-back hair, always nice and cleanly clothes.
This face wasn’t his. A raggedy beard across a dirty face. His matted hair spilled into his eyes. The rumpled prison uniform. A face of a stranger. 225 staggered backwards, falling onto the cot. The realization had hit him like a double decker bus.
There had really been 226 people lost that day. That day that the machine didn’t work, when it fell through the floor and set the building alight. That man that had woken up in the emergency room after wasn’t him anymore. Suddenly, all the emotions and memories that he had locked away came back in. He had been a scientist with a promising career. He remembered that day perfectly when they strode into his office and said the funding had been pulled; the project was being shut down. He knew the machine wasn’t ready and he tested it anyway. It was an accident. And finally, after six years, 225 deaths, and shutting himself off from everyone else, 225 cried. The tears slipped down his eyes and dripped off his chin. He sobbed for the life he had lost. He cried for the things he had done. He wept for the man he had become. The girl’s words echoed in his mind.
His eyes drifted to the paper on the table. He grabbed the pen and signed the contract. He had to do something. Or those 225 people did die for nothing.